Wilco’s ‘Summer Teeth’

The longest song on Wilco’s Summer Teeth is the one about “searching for a home,” an appropriate metaphor if ever there were one for a group of musicians so thoroughly uncomfortable with its own history. Born out of the ashes of alt-country legends Uncle Tupelo, a band so important an entire subgenre assumed the name of its album No Depression, Wilco has never been short on songs, but the band’s never fully emerged from the long shadow of its own thoroughbred. Fine and ambitious as A.M. and Being There were, they often seemed to fear their own instincts.

Until now, that is. Frontman Jeff Tweedy has always been, first and foremost, a pop songwriter, as the call-and-response swagger of his not-quite-a-demi-hit “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” attested. But Wilco’s earlier albums found the band playing down Tweedy’s pop smarts, enveloping gleefully hooky tracks like “Box Full of Letters” and “Outtasite” in well-crafted but self-conscious dirges and ballads.

Wilco’s great move on Summer Teeth, then, is all in the presentation. For the first time, the band unabashedly promotes itself as a pop outfit, No Depression purists be damned. The result brings Tweedy’s pop genius into lush but clear focus. Other songwriters might craft tauter melodies or tighter grooves, but few even approach Tweedy’s understanding of form: his gorgeous songs are intricately detailed; his meaty rockers solidly crafted. Summer Teeth practically oozes with great pop moments. There’s the way Tweedy alters recurring lines: “no love’s as random as God’s love/my love;” “I’m bragging/worried I’m always in love;” cleverest of all, “she begs me not to miss/hit her.” There’s the way he introduces keyboard blips to spritz up the already boppy hooks of “I’m Always in Love” and “ELT.” There’s the way he sticks with his best lines, repeating them until – and he always seems to calibrate this just right – it’s time to move on.

At its best, Tweedy’s craftmanship creates some stunning moments. Take, for example, the brilliant opening of “We’re Just Friends.” “Over and over and over again, I say that we’re just friends,” he moans in a better Paul Westerberg croak than Paul Westerberg himself can manage these days. And then Tweedy goes silent for 20 seconds, instruments barely mumbling in the background, before going on with the song. It’s pathos both thought out and executed, and it’s a classic navel-gazing moment in the grand tradition of the Replacements’ Let it Be and – arguably the antithesis of No Depression – the Smiths’ “Girl Afraid.”

The points of origin don’t stop there, of course. The acoustic songs – “Pieholden Suite,” “How to Fight Loneliness,” “Summer Teeth” – are cut from the cloth of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, clear on the surface but complex in arrangement. The rockers recall the Velvet Underground: “Can’t Stand It” shares more than a title with its Velvets counterpart; “Nothing’severgonnastandinmy-way(again)” captures the bald innocence of “Who Loves the Sun.”

Alas, “Who Loves the Sun” was a sad song, and no No Depression is a double negative. So, steeped in the joy of pop though it may be, Summer Teeth is a remarkably downtrodden record. Tweedy calls it “dark pop,” and in a sense he’s right: the fact that he’s writing naked pop tunes liberates him to pursue almost unremittingly painful subject matter without moping. The closest parallel here is Matthew Sweet’s unjustly overlooked Altered Beast: both song cycles unfold loosely around the breakdown of a relationship, juxtaposing anger with introspection. What makes Summer Teeth particularly pointed is that Tweedy’s bite actually matches his bark. One minute he’s fantasizing about killing his lover (“and it felt alright to me”), another he’s acting out on it (“she begs me not to hit her”). And just as Altered Beast saw Sweet stating and restating verses until he’d run them into the ground, Summer Teeth finds Tweedy repeating his most pointed lines as if he just can’t let go of them.

Even the ostensibly happy songs come with barbs. “Nothing’s ever gonna stand in my way again,” Tweedy sings, but he knows damn well that he’s just trying to delude himself through aphorism: “I’m a bomb regardless.” The song itself becomes both optimism and escape, and Tweedy pays so much attention to his songs that you can be sure he understands. Which is pretty comforting, even for a guy with homicidal dreams.

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